Design and the mind: Instagram and Psychology

Rebecca L Garrison
8 min readAug 5, 2021

Welcome designers. Do you want to learn how psychology influences how an app or product was created? How about how to examine that product or app based on important design principles? Now you may be wondering, “Why does this matter to me, the designer?”. Simply put, it should matter because to elevate our design work, we need to be aware of the strong psychological forces behind how and why we use and engage with a product.

In this article, I’ll be examining the incredibly popular app Instagram from a human factors x-ray vision perspective. What does this mean? Essentially, in this scenario, I am choosing one of my favorite products or services (Instagram in this case) and identifying at least three principles that appear to have influenced its existing interface. Specifically, the design principles of Aesthetic and minimalist design, Recognition rather than recall, and Consistency and standards. In this article, we’ll explore these concepts and what they mean, answering the question: What does this mean for design and why study this at all?

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, first a little background on Instagram. The app was released without great fanfare on October 6th, 2010. In a few hours, the app had reached 10,000 downloads. Soon this grew to 10 million, and eventually to over a billion users currently (Purtill, 2020). This social media app allows users to post pictures (with filters if desired) and videos, writing captions, and using hashtags to describe the post. You also have the option to edit your profile, view your feed, like and comment on posts, and send and receive direct messages.

Without a doubt, Instagram took popular culture by storm and changed the way we live. Dr. Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist at Curtin University co-authored one of the first academic books investigating the platform called Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures. In her book, she examines the fascinating way in which spaces and people have changed themselves to fit into the Instagram aesthetic, stating “You see landscapes, physical places, people, changing and altering themselves to be Instagrammable — to register a tinkle of attention,” (Abidin et al., 2020). While the changes may not all be negative, there is a dark side to the curation of places and selves. In her book she notes, “We see this through cafes that have feature walls, we see this in tourist campaigns that focus on Instagramability, and perhaps more dreadfully we see this in body image issues and what it means to be Instagram-perfect.” Another unexpected casualty of Instagram, blogging. While blogging still exists, much of the e-commerce inspired posts by popular writers on blogs have been replaced. Gone are the long posts with in-depth stories, and in are the “influencer” product pushing selfies.

Now that we’ve gained a little knowledge about Instagram, I’m going to explore it from Human factors x-ray vision perspective. Three principles that have a great deal of influence were Aesthetic and minimalist design, Recognition rather than recall, and Consistency and standards. These principles, also known as heuristics, are from the well-known Jakob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design” in which Nielsen describes ten rules of thumb for design to ensure the interface you’re designing is user friendly.

Aesthetic and minimalist design: Instagram makes excellent use of this heuristic. This heuristic is simply that “Interfaces should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in an interface competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.” (Nielsen, 1994). Simply put, extra items on an interface that aren’t necessary are a distraction from what’s important. The app uses a simple layout, never crowding the user’s eye with needless information or options.

Here we can see an example:

The top menu consists of the plus button used for adding pictures, adding to your story (a temporary post), a reel (a video), or live (live video feed). The heart takes you to activity on your posts, and the chat bubble with the lightning inside represents the chats you have with others in private messages or groups. Underneath this, we see a collection of circles representing the stories people have posted that you follow. Beneath this, we are focusing on the main image and can see the picture and username of the poster, and the options below to like an image (the heart), comment (speech bubble), or send this post to friends (arrow). There is also a bookmark option to the right to save the post to a collection. Lastly, we have the main menu at the bottom of the screen, ever-present. This includes the home button (a house), the search function (magnifying glass), the reels option (a clapperboard), the shopping function (the shopping bag), and your profile (your picture).

While there is plenty of options and ways to explore the app, the minimalist design functions to make these options feel accessible but not overbearing or attention-grabbing. The options make use of a simple color scheme, black and white, with the main photo feed being generally in color, grabbing your attention. In psychology, this is known as attentional capture (dictionary.apa.org), or when a stimulus causes you to involuntarily shift your attention. It’s important to note how the visual system is limited, with one portion of our visual input taken in at a time (Kim & Cave, 1995). Essentially, attention guides everything we see and things that stand out generally get our attention, making the simplicity of Instagram even more impactful.

Recognition rather than recall: The heuristic of recognition rather than recall states “Minimize the user’s memory load by making elements, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the interface to another. Information required to use the design (e.g. field labels or menu items) should be visible or easily retrievable when needed.”(Nielsen, 1994). Essentially, we learn that we can reduce the amount of memory necessary for our users to use the product by keeping items and information on the screen that are important to complete the task (e.g. being able to access the home feed easily through a home button). Here we see this heuristic at play, with the options and actions easily available at any time on the screen, reducing the memory required to use the app.

Psychology also informs us that our recognition is better than recall, meaning that the more cues that are available for a task the easier it is to perform (Velazquez, 2020b). Essentially, when we have something to jog our memory, it’s easier to recognize something than recalling it(e.g., What is the capital of India?).

This highlight allows users to not waste time wondering what page they’re on and the options available to them are clear. We see that buttons such as the home feed button are always visible, and the one in use is highlighted to demonstrate where you are on the app.

Here we see the influence of the consistency and standards heuristic. This heuristic dictates “Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform and industry conventions.” Don’t try to use familiar icons, words, or actions to mean something atypical (e.g. a stop sign symbol which means go). Within Instagram, the home button takes you to the home feed, the magnifying glass to search, the plus sign to add things, and so on. These options use the standards laid out before by other apps, making them more approachable and usable by new users and old users alike. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Instagram smartly uses these standard icons to show users what is possible.

So now that we’ve learned about these three design principles we can move into how these heuristics can be incorporated into your practice as a designer. By using these principles, you can ensure your design is not only more aesthetically pleasing but easier for users to enjoy.

Aesthetic and minimalist design: What can designers do to have an aesthetic and minimalist design? By simply keeping things in their product uncluttered and only including options essential to satisfy user needs (Velazquez, 2020c). Adhering to a minimalist design will also lead to a more aesthetically pleasing experience for users, such as only incorporating images that are relevant to the content users are viewing.

Recognition rather than recall: What can designers do to promote recognition? It’s all about giving users extra help to remember information. Incorporating common things like a menu bar will help users by giving them available commands they can recognize and easily use (Velazquez, 2020b). An excellent example of this comes from Google docs, where a user can simply hover their cursor over an item and a label appears, removing the need to remember what each action does. This extra attention to detail means a lot to novice users especially or those who use a product, app, or site infrequently.

Consistency and standards heuristic: What steps can designers take to maintain consistency and standards in their products? Products should have a consistent feel to them and use the standards of other products like it (Velazquez, 2020a). There are two types of consistency, internal and external. Internal consistency is consistency within a product, such as if you have one button that says ‘Sign up’ and another that says ‘Create Account’ which results in the same action, you have violated internal consistency (Velazquez, 2020a). External consistency is consistency between your product and other similar products available. For example, users should be able to expect similar services and features across similar products, such as the shopping cart on an e-commerce platform living in the upper right-hand corner. By making your design adhere to expectations, you increase its learnability, or the ability of a new user to learn a design they have not encountered before (Nielsen, 1994).

So, designers, we’ve reached the end. While there are seven more heuristics we could discuss, these are good options to include in your next design. We’ve discovered the beauty of minimalism, the way to help ease the load on a person’s memory, and how to learn a new product more quickly. All these things will make your products more useful, enjoyable, and even more accessible. With the help of psychology, we can all become more conscientious and responsible designers, paving the way to a better design future.

References

Abidin, C., Highfield, T., Leaver, T. (2020). Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures. United Kingdom: Wiley.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Attentional Capture. https://dictionary.apa.org/attentional-capture

Kim, M., & Cave, K. (1995). Spatial Attention in Visual Search for Features and Feature Conjunctions. Psychological Science, 6(6), 376–380. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40062892

Nielsen, J. (1994, April 24). 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. NNG, Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/

Purtill, J. (2020, October 5). Instagram is turning 10: Here’s how it’s changed over a decade. ABC.https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/a-brief-history-of-the-first-10-years-of-instagram/12731664

Velazquez, M. (2020, July 4). Jakob Nielsen’s fourth usability heuristic for user interface design: Consistency and standards.https://uxdesign.cc/jakob-nielsens-fourth-usability-heuristic-for-user-interface-design-7a25960037d1

Velazquez, M. (2020, July 17). Jakob Nielsen’s sixth usability heuristic for user interface design: Recognition rather than recall. https://uxdesign.cc/jakob-nielsens-sixth-usability-heuristic-for-user-interface-design-ac88e7d58ec

Velazquez, M. (2020, July 28). Jakob Nielsen’s eighth usability heuristic for user interface design: Aesthetic and minimalist design. https://uxdesign.cc/jakob-nielsens-eighth-usability-heuristic-for-user-interface-design-62fbbe7aa734

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